Public figure an enigma
The most popular question that South African political journalists are asked in the post-Polokwane era is probably: “What is it about Jacob Zuma, who is this man that his supporters would kill for?”
Of course, newspaper readers in South Africa are generally more middle class and therefore not the core constituency of the ANC. Their access to Zuma is limited to a dancing man on television and outrageous quotes chosen by journalists to sell their stories to their editors and eventually to the readers.
So I was very happy to hear last year that veteran journalist Jeremy Gordin was working on a biography about the president-in-waiting, hoping that one would gain more insight into the personality and thinking of the most controversial political figure in post-1994 South African politics. I was wrong.
At the start of the biography Gordin—recently retrenched associate editor of the Sunday Independent—admits to being a great admirer of Zuma, arguing that if he did not like him there would be no point in writing a book about the ANC president.
Is this a prerequisite for good biographies? Did writer Mark Gevisser like former president Thabo Mbeki when he decided to embark on what became his majestic 800-plus page biography Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred?
But that’s where I made my first mistake. A reader who ploughed through the thoroughly researched, meticulously written and expansive Mbeki biography will be bitterly disappointed with Zuma: A Biography (Jonathan Ball).
Mostly based on the years since the start of the Schabir Shaik trial, Gordin’s book serves as a useful reference of who said and did what during that trial, Zuma’s rape trial, the court hearings during Zuma’s corruption trial and the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane. But if you are expecting the author to dig deeper and help you to a more comprehensive understanding of the would-be president, you won’t find it.
Most of the information contained in its 307 pages is already in the public domain, either through news stories or opinion pieces. From what I could gather Gordin had a few private meetings with Zuma—at his house in Forest Town, Johannesburg, at his homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, and shortly after his election at Polokwane—but it is obvious that Zuma did not reveal much of himself during these meetings and Gordin did not have the time to do the research that is needed to get inside the mind of Msholozi.
In one instance Gordin tries to redeem himself, saying he tried to probe Zuma on his love for women and on his polygamist lifestyle, which Gordin cites as a key reason for Zuma’s money troubles. Zuma refused to discuss this, Gordin says, because he will write his autobiography soon in which he will shed more light on the more intimate parts of his world. Yet Gordin remains a sympathetic biographer and deals with Zuma’s alleged womanising rather succinctly. “It is difficult to know how to respond to this accusation other than to say ‘yes, and your point is?’,” Gordin writes.
He admits to being branded by fellow hacks as the “unofficial spokesperson” for Zuma, but the scant analysis of Zuma in the book proves that he is not.
Gordin talks frankly about how he was played by Zuma’s lawyer, Michael Hulley, and later lied to by the complainant when researching a rumour that a charge of rape had been laid against Zuma. He also admits how he followed up the rumour only after he was told that the Sunday Times, rival paper to Gordin’s Sunday Independent, had the story on its front page.
To his credit, Gordin puts paid to the ANC adage that no one campaigns for leadership positions. He admits that Zuma ran a “painstaking behind-the-scenes campaign” to be elected president of the ANC—another fact that everyone knew, but it is good to have on record. Yet one learns little more of the strategic thinking that fuelled Zuma’s march to Polokwane and beyond.
The final chapter is devoted to summarising all that has been said about Zuma by those around him—that he is a man of great charm, has the rare ability to listen properly, is intelligent, brave and committed. Also how he lives dangerously and is not averse to taking risks.
But these “qualities” were already obvious during Gordin’s rendition of Zuma’s legal trials and Polokwane. I’m still not convinced by this explanation of his popularity. And I still don’t understand why people are willing to kill for him.